The hockey season officially ended on June 21 with a championship trophy from the American Hockey League handed out to end a seven game series deserving of the label, “instant classic.”
Prospects from the Seattle Kraken were one shot away from claiming it. They nearly did it in storybook fashion, in a new geographic outpost still with “new franchise smell.”
But it was Mike Vecchione of the Hershey Bears who sniffed out a loose puck and delivered a Calder Cup championship to the Washington Capitals affiliate. Behind his overtime winner, the Bears claimed their league leading 12th Cup title, defeating the Coachella Valley Firebirds, 3-2 in game seven of the Finals on Wednesday night at Acrisure Arena.
Hunter Shepard emerged from a spillover of player families celebrating on the ice to accept the league’s Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for playoff MVP, capping the championship run with a 45-save effort. He started all 20 games for Hershey, earning a .914 save percentage.
Captain Dylan McIlrath accepted the Cup from league commissioner Scott Howson at center ice and hoisted it amidst over 20 frenzied Bears, in uniform and scratched, capping the fourth AHL title for head coach Todd Nelson.
The Firebirds, playing in front of their fifth straight sellout and another promising sign that professional hockey has permanently gripped the California resort town by storm, could nearly smell a championship with a promising 2-0 lead in the second period. Defenseman Ryker Evans, unquestionably a front-runner for an NHL role in Seattle next season, put them ahead 1-0 in the first period and captain Max McCormick finished a wide open look, off the rush, for a 2-0 lead that seemingly put the Calder Cup into the hands of engravers, ready to etch “Firebirds” on the plate.
Then, the Bears woke from their slumber. Connor McMichael tapped in their first goal of the game on a power play with 6:08 left in the period, after McCormick went off for tripping. Hendrix Lapierre then knotted the score with 2:51 to play, and it was anyone’s game in a classic “winner take all,” “do or die” bash.
Hershey outshot Coachella Valley, 9-4 in the third period while Joey Daccord, making his own bid for postseason MVP, stood his ground on a critical third period penalty kill to keep the score tied.
The Firebirds best look, arguably, came on a Tye Kartye snapper between the circles while first-round prospect Shane Wright tried his own luck with a deflection at the net, barely catching the toe of Shepard, and Andrew Poturalski nearly put the season to bed on a ten-bell, highlight-reel, between-the-legs attempt.
Vecchione ended the thriller at the left post and opened the championship door for Hershey with 3:41 left in overtime.
Though denied of a league title in their expansion season, Coachella Valley became an overnight success story where sustained success, on the ice and at the box office, is extremely difficult to come by. The Firebirds drew nearly 9,000 per game in the postseason through the gates of Acrisure Arena, and led by head coach Dan Bylsma finished three points off the league’s top record and conquered their first five games when facing elimination with wins on home ice.
Their season, 98 games deep with the regular season and playoffs, was a marathon worthy of a docuseries. With Acrisure Arena still under construction until December, they started their season in Seattle with September training camp, followed by games on home ice that were hosted either at Climate Pledge Arena, Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, or even Kraken Community Iceplex. Players and traveling staff stayed in local hotels for over a month, had cars shipped to California when their practice facility was finally completed in the fall, and had to wait until December to play their first true home game on home ice.
The patience game paid off. The result was a trailblazing season for success as the main developmental affiliate pipeline of the Kraken, with those such as Evans, Kartye, forward Shane Wright, and Daccord (though needing a new contract) set to get either a potential or sure-fire serious look at making the Kraken roster next season. Young prospects such as Jagger Firkus, David Goyette, Logan Morrison, and Ryan Winterton are either a season away or completely primed for the pro ranks, where the AHL is a likely starting spot.
Though there is no championship, there is accomplishment, and still, plenty of potential.